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26 Years After Independence, 3 Central Asian Nations Ink Border Deals

By Fuad Mukhtarli November 21, 2017

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Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan (left), Uzbekistan (middle) and Turkmenistan (right) after signing border agreement in Samarkand. informburo.kz

As all former Soviet states are marking 26 years of independence this year, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – three energy-rich Central Asian nations – have inked a deal in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on November 10 to finally delineate national borders.

“We have signed a very important document, the ‘Agreement on the area of the junction between the state borders of the three states - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan,’” said Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, according to InformBuro.kz.

“This is, without exaggeration, an historical document for Central Asia, since it puts an end to the [issue of] legalization of the state borders of our three states,” Abdrakhmanov added.

The issue of national borders is complex one for Central Asia, as neighbors in the region share thousands of kilometers of common frontier. The USSR dissolved officially in December 1991, and demarcating the borders of the newly created countries was never easy.

For over a year, the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been involved in high-level and intensive talks to finally reach an agreement.

"In essence, this is a question of responsible state-building and security of the country,” said Kazakhstan’s foreign minister.

The signing ceremony was held in Samarkand, on the sidelines of an international conference held under the auspices of the UN, titled, “Central Asia: One Past and a Common Future, Cooperation for Sustainable Development and Mutual Prosperity” on 10 November.

At the turn of the century, Kazakhstan had been working bilaterally with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to settle border disputes. The former shares a 413 km (257 mi) border with Kazakhstan, while the latter’s border measures 2,330 km (1,448 mi).

Independence for the Central Asian states reopened a Pandora’s Box of border disputes. Most contemporary difficulties can be traced directly to a problematic Soviet legacy. The Kremlin had, during the Soviet era, formed administrative borders of its then-Central Asian states in the mid-1920s, but without delineating them clearly via natural geographic boundaries or along strict ethnic lines.

Faced with economic hardship and a growing threat of religious extremism and terrorism, the region has slowly come to terms with the need to end centuries-old strife over borders.

Border talks over the decades since the collapse of the USSR took place through a mix of economic pressures, nationalist sentiments and mutual mistrust, and some say shadowy backroom deals. But they have managed to sidestep the military confrontations and bloodshed that have plagued other regions where independent countries sprang up also as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war between 1992-1994, as the former occupied Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region along with seven surrounding districts, all which amount to about 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s land mass. Georgia, also in the South Caucasus, witnessed a post-Soviet feud in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

While wars in Central Asia were averted, there have been some close calls.

In early 2000, Uzbekistani border guards were found undertaking a unilateral demarcation of the border with Kazakhstan in an effort to build outposts. The move alarmed officials in Astana, after which a joint Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan commission was subsequently established, and by September 2000 it held three rounds of talks to try and settle the border issues.

In November 2001, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan signed an agreement to demarcate 96 percent of their borders.

Unlike Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which solved border issues at political summits and through on-the-ground demarcation, efforts undertaken by Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan stimulated little in the way of positive bilateral resolutions during their first decade of independence.

Much of the terrain where Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan meet Kazakhstan is desert and uninhabited. But Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan share a border populated with towns and cities, thanks to the Amu Darya river, which runs nearby. Roughly half the length of the river lies in Uzbekistan, while the other half in Turkmenistan.

Ethnic Uzbeks make up about ten percent of the population in Turkmenistan, and about 150,000 Turkmens live in the border areas of Uzbekistan. The man-made created border between the two countries and the visa regime introduced by Turkmenistan has split numerous family ties.

But in 2004, the presidents of the two countries met in Bukhara, Uzbekistan and adopted a declaration of friendship and cooperation that paved the way for the reconciliation, as high gas prices and prospects for joint gas transportation to a new market, namely China, was at stake.

In April 2006, Turkmenistan and China signed a contract on the construction of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline project and the sale of Turkmenistan’s natural gas to China. In December of the same year, the current president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, came to power and marked a fresh start in bilateral relations with Uzbekistan. Berdimuhamedov managed to ignore thorny problems in cooperation with Uzbekistan.

Since his time in office, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has visited the country and signed a number of agreements, including treaties on strategic and economic cooperation, and a memorandum that is intended to development railway links between the two.